There's a reason why we find it easier to "get" modern art than avant-garde music, and it's not just about our natural conservatism and love of Mozartby Philip Ball / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Looking at Rothko: no harder to “see” than wallpaper
Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen
By David Stubbs (Zero Books, £9.99)
The writer Joe Queenan caused a minor rumpus in the austere world of contemporary classical music last year by complaining about how painful much of it is. He called Berio’s Sinfonia (1968) “35 minutes of non-stop torture,” Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte (1953) like “a cat running up and down the piano” and Birtwistle’s latest opera The Minotaur “funereal caterwauling.” “A hundred years after Schoenberg,” he wrote, “the public still doesn’t like anything after Transfigured Night, and even that is a stretch.”
Inevitably, Queenan was lambasted as a reactionary philistine. Performances of “modern” works like this were well attended, his critics said. And while Queenan took pains to distance himself from the conservative concertgoers who demand a steady diet of Mozart and Brahms, his comments were denounced as the same old clichés. Yet clichés become clichés for a reason. It’s true that these challenging works will find audiences in London’s highbrow venues, but the fact remains that Stockhausen and Penderecki, whose works are now as old as “Rock Around the Clock,” have not been assimilated into the classical canon in the way that Ravel and Stravinsky have. When someone like Queenan has earnestly tried and failed to appreciate this “new” music, it’s fair to ask what the problem is.
David Stubbs considers this important question in Fear of Music, but doesn’t come close to answering it. His speculative suggestion—that musical performance lacks an “original object” that, in the case of visual art, may become the subject of veneration or trade—clearly has little force, given that it applies equally to Beethoven and Birtwistle. Indeed, Stubbs’s analysis is part of the problem rather than the solution. Like economists trying to understand market crashes, he wants to place all the motive forces outside the system: his gaze never fixes on the music itself. To Stubbs, our responses to music are determined by our context and perspective, not by what we actually hear. His comparison of visual and musical art takes no account of how the two are processed in cognitive terms.